Responses by Colin Corcoran, executive creative director/copywriter/art director
Background: The project purpose was to increase enrollment at NOLS, or the National Outdoor Leadership School, especially in 30-plus day courses, by helping college-bound students and their parents understand that the greatest risk is not preparing for exposure to inevitable adversity in life. The target audiences are high household income parents and their 16- to 24-year-olds with big dreams, but who are constrained by practical education paths. The campaign ran in the New York Times, Outside, Harvard Magazine and Banff Centre Mountain Film Festival World Tour Magazine.
Reasoning: NOLS is not for everyone. And because it’s a niche brand, it was worth the risk to question college-aged young adults to start challenging themselves more. America has experienced a cultural shift where parents now try to be their child’s best buddy instead of teaching them about how real life works. As a result, today’s young adults have never been told “no” or that their efforts aren’t always good enough. All of which has added up to a thin-skinned generation not knowing what to do when their carefully made plans don’t always go according to their carefully made plans.
Challenges: Never having even heard of NOLS before and only having less than a week to concept, write, art direct and produce an entire campaign of long-copy print ads.
Favorite details: Having elements in the photography visually leap out of the ads was a last minute decision that made the art direction more dimensional with subtle, but eye-catching optical illusions. It was a technique taught to us back in our portfolio school days that Steve Mapp SteveMapp.com and I had always wanted to try on the right assignment.
Visual influences: We are proud to say these layouts are odes to the era of handmade ads in Communication Arts’s Advertising Annuals from the ’90s and early ’00s. The campaign’s art direction viscerally reflects the ruggedness of NOLS’s expeditions. Open letters are printed on weathered topographical maps complemented by actual, unretouched photography. The aesthetics are further brought to life with imagery that breaks the boundaries of the ads, reinforcing the copy’s theme of pushing past personal limits in order to personally evolve and professionally grow.
Time constraints: Because there wasn’t time for proper brand research, the ads wound up being more personal writing than copywriting per se, taking an approach based on recent observations regarding the current generation of American parents and child-raising trends.
Specific demands: To use existing brand photography from the client’s internal archives. There were more beautiful photos like an aerial view of a campsite on top of a mountain peak and a kayaker paddling in a lagoon of icebergs, but those orientations didn’t work with our layouts. If we could have done a dedicated shoot or considered stock photography that would have probably been a lot easier. And better.
Anything new: We learned that even guides from companies like Outward Bound and REI also train at NOLS in order to become certified wilderness survival experts. And that this was the nonprofit school’s first national ad campaign, which was entirely funded by a private donor.
Alternative approach: Talking the client into letting this campaign use a more interesting looking typeface, at least for the headline treatment. That would have cost nothing and made the work look less dated.